Often, parents at their wits end throw out threats like “if you don’t do [this] then you won’t get [that]!” How often does this work for you? Typically, your child gets upset, has a tantrum, they don’t do what you’ve asked them to do, and they don’t get the thing they wanted to get. I’ve got a way for you to turn this around. The positive alternative to this technique involves using an antecedent “promise reinforcer” (before the behavior occurs), an expectation of appropriate behavior, and reinforcement for said behavior. For example, “Cindy, first finish your homework, then you can go play” or “Bobby, you can earn your cookies after you eat your broccoli”, and so on.
The first step for success is to begin to anticipate problems behaviors before they occur. You can certainly see patterns in your child’s behavior. For example, when you tell your child that it’s time to do homework how often does a battle ensue? I’m guessing more often than not! If you know a particular activity will likely prompt problem behaviors, then with a little preparation you are able to make some antecedent manipulations to avoid the problem behaviors. Antecedents can set the occasion for our children to engage in the behaviors we desire. The lack of planning these antecedents can set the occasion for our children to engage in problem behaviors. Antecedent manipulations can be anything from the “promise reinforcers” in the example above to modifying the complexity of the activity. Think “outside the box” but don’t get too complicated!
Once you set these antecedents in place, don’t forget to reinforce (i.e. reward) your child’s good behaviors (or small improvements towards the desired behaviors). Effective reinforcement is the only way to keep the good behaviors occurring. In order for reinforcers to be effective they must be highly desired so you may have to switch up reinforcers on a regular basis. Kids eventually get satiated on the same old thing – the same cookies, the same movie, the same toy. You might have fun creating a treasure box from which they choose their own reinforcer.
As parents, to avoid the dreaded threat, we should commit to setting expectations from the beginning. We shouldn’t wait until our children have done something we dislike to throw out the threat. Instead, we should let our child know up front the expectation and what the reward will be for following through. This may seem like an extra step up front, but it will surely save the time of arguing after the fact! And lest we forget: REINFORCE!